Lecture 4: The American Dream


The rapid growth of immigration in the U.S. was related to the settlement of the Great Plains and to industrialization, for immigrants filled the ranks in both areas. This lecture looks both at the growth of immigration and at the nativist response of older-stock Americans to this development. Because the concepts associated with immigration are generally applicable, this topic is always current.



Immigrants to the U.S. came because of push forces (from the old country) and pull forces (in the new, the U.S.). Exact circumstances varied, but what immigrants had in common was pursuit of an American Dream—a new start.

Immigration and the Reaction

As Americans observed the rising tides of immigration in the 1880s and again in the early 1900s, they were ambivalent. They liked the idea of the U.S. as a land of opportunity, but they weren’t so sure they liked the new immigrants coming in. The conflict in ideals between opportunity and nativism brings us to consider key arguments between assimilation on one hand and diversity on the other. During the period we are studying, nativists took some concrete actions to stop the flow of immigrants.

Immigrants in North Dakota

We pause to consider the important role of immigrants in settling this part of the country and the visible evidence of their legacy.

The American Dream?

The hardships endured by many immigrants, especially those clustered in ethnic ghettoes, can lead us to wonder whether they found their American Dream. Let’s take a longer view on this, whereby we see that although the immigrant generation may have suffered, there was opportunity for their children eventually to find an equitable place in American society. The disturbing exception to this, however, is race, a consistent and continuing anomaly in the American ideal of opportunity.

Download Lecture 4




“Unlimited Power of the Majority in the United States and Its Consequences”

Here Tocqueville puts forward his most famous and controversial concept, the "tyranny of the majority." He applies this both to political life and to social custom. In this course I intend also to connect Tocqueville's ideas of majority rule and minority rights to the subjects of immigration and ethnicity.


·         What is "tyranny of the majority"? Can you give an example?

·         Comment on: "When I refuse to obey an unjust law, I do not contest the right of the majority to command, but I simply appeal from the sovereignty of the people to the sovereignty of mankind."

·         Is there true freedom of thought in the United States, a democracy?

·         Can you apply Tocqueville's ideas to questions of national unity, group rights, and individual liberties such as are debated in America today?


New Immigrants and Old – Prof. Isern’s table to accompany lecture

Statue of Liberty & Ellis Island – symbols and landmarks of immigration to America

Wrought Iron Crosses – distinctive folk-art of the Germans from Russia

Film Review

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

View this as a story of acculturation and of ethnic accommodation.

West Side Story

The creation of ethnic ghettoes did not cease with the heyday of the European immigrants.  A romanticized version of Hispanic urban life—hot stuff in the 1960s—Romeo & Juliet updated.

Book Review

Raaen, Grass of the Earth

Story of hardship in a Norwegian pioneer family.

Rolvaag, Giants in the Earth

Classic novel of the Norwegian immigrant experience.

Rachel Calof’s Story

Jewish mail-order bride from Russia faces a hard life on the North Dakota frontier.

Handlin, The Uprooted

Handlin is the founding scholar of immigration history.